From nurses to hospitals to overall investment, every major health pledge the Tories have made in this election campaign can be shown to be a lie. They can't be trusted with the NHS.
In a token effort to reach out to the millions of Tories who did not (or now no longer) support Brexit, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have thrown in what they hope will be a couple of catchy promises in relation to England’s NHS.
- “6,000 more doctors in general practice and 6,000 more primary care professionals, such as physiotherapists and pharmacists”
- “An end to unfair hospital car parking charges by making parking free for those in greatest need”
- “50,000 more nurses, with students receiving a £5,000-£8,000 annual maintenance grant”
These promises, of course, follow on previous equally spurious ones – the £1.8 billion of “new money” for repairs, most of which wasn’t new; the “fake forty” promise of “new hospitals”, when the real figure is six, several of which are rebuilds, with decisions on the others not due until at least 2025; and claims to be spending “record amounts” and £33.9 billion extra by 2024, when the real terms increase is just £20.5 billion, after nine years of virtually frozen funding.
The promise of 6,000 extra doctors (with the related promise of 50 million more appointments each year) – points to a long-standing failure of governments since 2015 to deliver on Jeremy Hunt’s infamous promise of an extra 5,000 GPs by 2020. In fact, GP numbers have fallen by 1,000 in the past five years, while waits have increased.
Earlier this year a BMA report showed that the number of patients waiting over two weeks for an appointment with their GP was up by 13% compared to the same months in 2018. Appointments with a wait of over 28 days were up 15% on the previous year.
The promise of 6,000 GPs had already been made by Matt Hancock – and exposed by Pulse magazine as another misleading claim, including 3,000 trainees in the total along with just 3,000 qualified GPs. Perhaps that’s why Johnson’s manifesto is careful only to promise “more doctors in general practice” rather than GPs.
There has been little focus on the linked promise of another 6,000 primary care professionals: there is no plan to recruit or train them, and no extra budget to pay them. This is already set to be another broken promise.
So what of the manifesto commitment to scrap fees for parking at English NHS hospitals, billed by the Sunday Telegraph as axing charges for “millions”?
It’s another con. The Daily Mirror was the first to look closer at the wording, and show that the promise is to make parking free only for those “in greatest need”. So unless you are disabled, a “frequent” outpatient attender, a parent of a sick child staying overnight or a night shift NHS worker you will still have to fork out: the majority of staff, outpatients and almost all hospital visitors will still have to pay.
In Wales these charges were axed from 2008, and the Scottish parliament followed suit in 2009. It’s only in England and Northern Ireland we still have to pay. But with recent NHS policies pushing towards more downgrades and closures of local hospital services and “centralisation” of specialist and emergency care – alongside the continued run-down of privatised bus routes – the need for adequate parking is vital for patients and staff alike.
Many of the staff affected are of course nurses, who face not only stiff parking charges but a desperate shortage of parking space as an added pressure, on top of the increasing levels of stress they face in the workplace as a result of 40,000 unfilled nursing posts.
The promise of 50,000 “more nurses” has become the latest Tory untruth about the NHS to break through in the election debate. It was swiftly debunked, by the Guardian and Independent, by Nursing Notes and by Full Fact, which argued that with the latest figures showing 39,500 nursing posts vacant, an extra 50,000 would increase numbers by just 10,000. Even by the Daily Mail called out the government on the figures.
The Independent pointed out that at most 31,500 of the 50,000 would be “extra” nurses. “The 50,000 figure includes an estimated 18,500 existing nurses,” it revealed, “who will be encouraged to remain within the NHS or attracted back after leaving by new measures to improve career development opportunities.”
Nicky Morgan was sent to defend the claim on Good Morning Britain and was ridiculed on the “nonsense pledge” by Piers Morgan and Susannah Reid. During that interview we found out, through research by The Independent, that the plan includes “14,000 new nursing training places … as well as 5,000 more nursing apprentices and 12,500 recruits from abroad.”
So 19,000 of the 50,000 ‘nurses’ would not be qualified staff but students – after a U-turn in reversing the Cameron government’s decision to axe the NHS bursary.
The viability of recruiting so many overseas nurses is in serious doubt, especially given the huge drop in recruitment from EU countries since the Brexit vote, and the continuation of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” in new, brutal immigration policies unveiled by the Johnson government which effectively erect a giant neon “Piss Off” sign to deter overseas doctors and nurses.
The pitiful concession of a “half price” NHS visa, still costing £464, for staff coming here (a new cost after Brexit for EU staff who could come for nothing) is coupled with a projected further hike in the “immigration health surcharge” from £400 to £625 per person per year if a re-elected Johnson government fulfils its promise to Daily Mail readers to “get tough on post Brexit migrants”. These discriminatory charges have to be paid in addition to regular UK taxes by any staff who do decide to come.
Full Fact has also raised doubts over the minimal £879 million allocated to funding the extra nursing staff and reinstating the bursary. They argue that the full cost of employing 50,000 Band 5 nurses could be as high as £2.6 billion per year. But that assumes there would be anything like 50,000 extra staff to pay.
It’s clear the Johnson promises are not worth the paper they are printed on. Once more this winter we will see the irony of elderly Tory voters on trolleys in rural and city hospitals waiting for beds and treatment that have been cut back by the party they voted for.
After nine years of Tory-led governments running down the NHS, driving trusts into deficit, fragmenting and privatising services have left performance targets plummeting – and the looming threat of our NHS being carved up by Donald Trump in a post-Brexit trade deal, it’s time for a change.
This article is by John Lister, secretary for Keep Our NHS Public, and was originally published in Tribune Magazine on 26 November 2019